Los Angeles Rams at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Championship Pick

Los Angeles Rams (14-3) at New Orleans Saints (14-3)

These two met back in week 9 in New Orleans, but a lot has changed since then. At the time, the Rams were favored by a couple points, despite being the road team, because they were an undefeated 8-0 and seen as the early Super Bowl favorite. That changed when the Saints pulled the upset and subsequently went on to win 7 of their next 8 meaningful games, while the Rams went “just” 5-3 over the second half of the season. As a result, the Saints were able to clinch the #1 seed in the NFC before week 17, despite being a game and a half back of the Rams going into their week 9 matchup.

The Saints’ strong play is a big part of the reason why they overtook the Rams in the NFC, but the Rams also regressed a little bit down the stretch, particularly on offense after they lost slot receiver Cooper Kupp. The Rams still have a talented duo of receivers in Brandin Cooks and Robert Woods, but Kupp had been Jared Goff’s most effective receiver over the past 2 years. Goff completed 72.4% of his 152 targets to Kupp for 1,504 yards, 12 touchdowns, and just 2 interceptions, a ridiculous 124.5 QB rating. Kupp has missed 9 games in total including playoffs, but was also knocked out of 3 games with injury this season. In the 5 games he started and finished, the Rams had a 46.96% first down rate. In the 3 games he was knocked out, the Rams had a 44.72% first down rate. And in the 9 games he missed entirely, the Rams had a first down rate of 40.54%.

That’s still a good number and would have ranked 6th in the NFL over the course of the season, but they’re not quite the dominant offense they were going into the previous matchup, one of the five games Kupp started and finished (45.76% first down rate in a 45-35 loss). Their passing game in particular has fallen back to earth. Goff completed 71.8% of his passes for an average of 10.33 YPA, 14 touchdowns, and 3 interceptions in the 5 games Kupp started and finished, but just 59.8% of his passes for an average of 7.08 YPA, 15 touchdowns, and 6 interceptions in the 9 he’s missed completely. They’re still a strong offense, but they’re more reliant on the run than they were when Kupp was healthy.

Fortunately for them, the Saints also are missing a key player from the first matchup, with defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins going down with a torn achilles early in last week’s win over the Eagles. Outside of Cameron Jordan and Marshon Lattimore, Rankins was probably the Saints’ best defensive player this season, so that’s a big loss. Not only does losing him significantly hurt their chances of slowing down Todd Gurley and CJ Anderson on the ground, but he had a productive year as pass rusher as well, totaling 8 sacks, 6 hits, and 32 hurries on 450 pass rush snaps (10.2%).

On top of that, the Rams also have cornerback Aqib Talib healthy, which they didn’t have in the first matchup. In 6 games in which Talib has played more than half the snaps, the Rams have allowed opponents to pick up first downs at a 34.45% rate, as opposed to 40.12% in the 11 games in which he was inactive or limited. The Rams faced a pretty easily schedule in those 6 games (Oakland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Arizona, San Francisco, and Dallas), but it’s not hard to imagine how the return of the 6-1 209 Talib could have an impact in a rematch of a game in which the 6-3 212 Michael Thomas went for 12/211/1. I still have the Saints a little higher in my roster rankings, but I don’t think we’re getting enough line value here to bet on the Saints confidently.

New Orleans Saints 34 Los Angeles Rams 30

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -3

Confidence: Low

Philadelphia Eagles at New Orleans Saints: 2018 NFC Divisional Round Pick

Philadelphia Eagles (10-7) at New Orleans Saints (13-3)

When these two teams met in week 11, the Saints destroyed the Eagles in a game with the 2nd highest victory of margin on the season, beating them 48-7. A lot has changed for these Eagles since then though. For one, starting quarterback Carson Wentz was shut down with a back injury, after struggling through it for much of the season, which has allowed Nick Foles to take over under center. Not only is Foles playing at a high level, but this team really does seem to play at a higher level with their backs against the wall and a backup quarterback under center, winning 6 of 7 games since the Saints dropped them to 4-6 a couple months ago.

Their defense is also playing better, with talented every down linebacker Jordan Hicks back from injury and young cornerbacks Rasul Douglas and Avonte Maddox stepping up in an injury ravaged secondary. Hicks was originally injured in the loss to the Saints, as was Maddox and stud center Jason Kelce. Having those three in the lineup and Foles playing well under center should make this a much different game this time around.

That being said, the Saints are so good that they could still easily cover this spread. I’m taking the 8 points with the Eagles, who haven’t lost any of their other games by more than a touchdown, but the Saints are the most talented team in the league, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if they were able to win by multiple scores again here at home. I have this line calculated at New Orleans -7.5, so we’re barely getting any line value with the Eagles at +8. I’m taking them for pick ‘em purposes, but I would be surprised if the Saints didn’t advance. The Eagles have won straight up in all 5 games in which they’ve been underdogs with Nick Foles as the starter over the past two seasons, but I expect that miracle run to end this week.

New Orleans Saints 31 Philadelphia Eagles 24

Pick against the spread: Philadelphia +8

Confidence: None

Carolina Panthers at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 17 NFL Pick

Carolina Panthers (6-9) at New Orleans Saints (13-2)

This is one of several games this week that is unpredictable because of uncertainty about motivation. Saints head coach Sean Payton is at least giving lip service to playing his starters, but with the #1 seed in the NFC locked up it’s unlikely he’ll play his starters the whole game and the last time the Saints in 2009 were in this position their stars didn’t play at all. Drew Brees has already said publicly he doesn’t expect to play the whole game.

Backup quarterbacks Teddy Bridgewater and Taysom Hill are good enough to still lead the Saints to a victory even if Brees and company barely play and the Panthers are could be fielding a skeleton crew as well, down to practice squader Kyle Allen under center, missing top defensive lineman Kawann Short and talented guard Trai Turner, and possibly resting other key players like stud feature back Christian McCaffrey in a meaningless game, but this line is pretty high at 7. I’m taking the Saints for pick ‘em purposes, but I’m not putting much time into handicapping a game with this kind of uncertainty.

New Orleans Saints 24 Carolina Panthers 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7

Confidence: None

Pittsburgh Steelers at New Orleans Saints: 2018 Week 16 NFL Pick

Pittsburgh Steelers (8-5-1) at New Orleans Saints (12-2)

The Steelers got a huge win last week, beating the Patriots for the first time since the 2011 season. That win was big for several reasons, as the Steelers were previously on a 3-game losing streak (all in upset fashion) and were in danger of falling out of the playoffs with another loss. The schedule doesn’t get any easier this week though, with the Steelers now having to go to New Orleans to play the Saints, arguably the top team in the league. The Saints haven’t been quite as good in recent weeks, but they’ve also been on the road for three straight games and are now returning home, where they have covered 4 straight games, winning by an average of 22.25 points per game.

The injury news also favors the Saints, who are expected to get left tackle Terron Armstead back from a 5-game absence. Armstead is one of the top left tackles in the league and getting him back should boost this offense significantly. The Steelers, meanwhile, could be without talented receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster, who suffered a groin injury in practice on Thursday and did not practice at all on Friday. They’ll also be without running back James Conner for the second straight week. Given these two teams injury situations, this line is short at New Orleans -6.5. As long as this line is under a touchdown, the Saints are worth a bet this week.

New Orleans Saints 34 Pittsburgh Steelers 24

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -6.5

Confidence: Medium

New Orleans Saints at Carolina Panthers: 2018 Week 15 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (11-2) at Carolina Panthers (6-7)

If not for concerns about the health of Cam Newton’s throwing shoulder, the Panthers would be a big play this week. They’re on a 5 game losing streak after starting 6-2, but they could have easily won any of their past 4 games, losing each of them by a touchdown or less and winning the first down rate battle in all 4 games. On the season, they still rank 10th in first down rate differential at 2.44% and could easily be around 8-5 right now if not for a few snaps.

The Panthers lost by 1 in Detroit, in a game in which they missed a field goal, an extra point, and a 2-point conversation late when they didn’t trust their kicking unit to tie the game. They lost by a field goal at home to the Seahawks, but outgained the Seahawks by 1.9 yards per play in a game in which the Panthers missed another field goal, threw a red zone interception, failed on a 4th down, and allowed the Seahawks to go 2 for 2 on 4th downs. They lost by a touchdown in Tampa Bay in a game in which they outgained the Buccaneers by 1.5 yards per play, but lost the turnover battle by 3. And last week they had 22 first downs to 12 for the Browns, but allowed 3 plays of 50+ yards in a 6-point loss.

Cam Newton isn’t at 100%, but the Panthers have still played well enough to win in recent weeks. The Panthers have just one loss all season by more than a touchdown and that came on the road on a short week in Pittsburgh, relevant with this line at 6.5. However, it’s still going to be very tough for them to keep it close in a likely shootout with the Saints with Cam Newton obviously not playing his best right now. The Saints have shown they are vulnerable on the road in recent weeks, losing in Dallas and starting slow in Tampa Bay, but they are still the best team the Panthers have faced this season and Newton has 8 interceptions in his last 5 games, after 4 in his first 8. I might bet the Panthers at +7, but not at +6.5.

Sunday Update: The Panthers will also be without stud defensive tackle Kawann Short this week. Between that and Cam Newton’s injury, I’m dropping this to a no confidence pick. The Panthers are better than their record and should be fully focused for a do or die game, but the Saints are a dominant team that can exploit the Panthers’ injuries.

New Orleans Saints 33 Carolina Panthers 27

Pick against the spread: Carolina +6.5

Confidence: None

New Orleans Saints at Tampa Bay Buccaneers: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (10-2) at Tampa Bay Buccaneers (5-7)

The Saints shockingly lost in Dallas last week, with their high powered offense held to just 10 points in a 13-10 loss, but I’m not really changing my outlook for them going forward. The Cowboys were a capable team at home that played arguably the best game of their season at the same time the Saints had an off night, much like the Patriots’ loss in Tennessee a few weeks ago. The Saints still rank 3rd in first down rate differential at +5.79% and rank 2nd in my roster rankings. This line shifted from New Orleans -10.5 on the early line to New Orleans -9.5 this week and I’ll gladly take that extra line value, as I still have this line calculated at -12.

The Buccaneers have won two in a row, but they’ve had a +5 turnover margin in those two games (+2.5 per game), after being -23 over their first 10 games (-2.3 per game). Turnover margins are unpredictable on a week-to-week basis, but the Buccaneers start one of the most turnover prone quarterbacks in the league, so I expect the Buccaneers going forward to be closer to their early season turnover margin than their recent turnover margin. They are also banged up on both sides of the ball, missing tight end OJ Howard and wide receiver DeSean Jackson on offense and safety Justin Evans and cornerback Carlton Davis on defense. Despite last week’s loss, I still expect the Saints, who are 46-31 ATS off of a loss in the Drew Brees/Sean Payton era, to take care of business in this one.

New Orleans Saints 34 Tampa Bay Buccaneers 21

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -9.5

Confidence: High

New Orleans Saints at Dallas Cowboys: 2018 Week 13 NFL Pick

New Orleans Saints (10-1) at Dallas Cowboys (6-5)

Going into their week 8 bye, the Cowboys were a 3-4 team with a strong defense, but an underwhelming offense. They ranked 4th in first down rate allowed at 31.47%, but just 23rd in first down rate at 33.81%. In order to remedy this, the Cowboys made an aggressive move to acquire slumping former Pro-Bowl receiver Amari Cooper from the Raiders for a 2019 1st round pick, potentially giving this offense #1 receiver it sorely lacked.

It was a risky move, but it’s gone well so far, as Cooper has 22 catches for 349 yards and already leads the team with 3 receiving touchdowns, despite being with the team for just 4 games. In addition, his 19 receiving first downs are 2nd on the team. The offense hasn’t been great or anything since he arrived, but they have moved the chains at a 35.94% rate in his 4 games, about league average, which is noticeably better than before the bye.

However, the Cowboys’ defense has gone in the opposite direction, allowing opponents to move the chains at a 38.06% rate in 4 games since the bye. They are 3-1 in those 4 games, but they have just a +4 point differential and have lost the first down rate battle in every game except last week’s home game against a backup quarterback. Injuries are the biggest reason for their defensive decline, particularly the injury to linebacker Sean Lee, who went down early in the Cowboys’ first game out of the bye against the Titans, coinciding with their defensive decline.

Lee is one of the most injury prone players in the league and the Cowboys have always been significantly worse defensively with him out of the lineup. They are better prepared for his absence this season, with young linebackers Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith capable of playing every down, but this team is noticeably better when they have all three linebackers together. In the 4 healthy games that Lee has played this season (not including the game against the Titans which he left early in the first half), the Cowboys have allowed a 30.43% first down rate, as opposed to 35.93% in their other 7 games. Starting defensive end Taco Charlton, who also went down in their first game after the bye, is expected to return this week, but their offense could be without stud left tackle Tyron Smith, which would be a big blow.

The Saints are obviously a dominant team, but we’re not getting line value with them like we were earlier in the season, as they are -7.5 in Dallas this week (remember when they were +3 in Baltimore and -3 in New York against the Giants). In fact, if Smith ends up playing and this line doesn’t move, we’re getting a little bit of line value with the Cowboys. Unfortunately, Smith is a gametime decision, so we might not know until inactives are announced. For now, I’m taking the Cowboys for a no confidence pick, but I’ll almost definitely have an update before gametime.

Thursday Update: Smith looks unlikely to play, after not practicing all week. With him out, we aren’t getting any line value with the Cowboys, so I’m switching this pick to the Saints. This remains a no confidence pick as this line is about right.

New Orleans Saints 24 Dallas Cowboys 16

Pick against the spread: New Orleans -7.5

Confidence: None